Interviews and photos, the stuff of testimony

Yesterday we walked/drove around St. Bernard’s Parish to collect visual data on the multitude of cameras we brought with us.  We were given a list of 10 sites around the parish to visit and we were to collect some better shots of the projects St. Bernard Project was helping to complete or had, in fact completed.

One of the more moving testimonials came from Matt, a lifelong resident of the parish who was actually working on his own home with some other AmeriCorp volunteers.  He was actually a former insurance broker who lost it all in the hurricane and had decided to return and rebuild.  In fact, he had already helped to rebuild 13 other homes before his own and was such a noble person, it was hard to hear his story because of its awesome power.

Another woman we interviewed had had her home already completed.  She was so appreciative and stunned at the quality of the volunteers who had come to help out of their own volition.

We were told that the folks of the parish were very proud of being self-sustaining in the past, and that accepting help was a new, and sometimes challenging aspect of the rebuilding work.  These folks truly were able to reach out in their time of need and were amazed and enamoured of the relief workers who have come.  They still hold a lot of anger toward the U.S. government for not coming to their aid as quickly as the people and citizens who have shown up.

Meeting your Makers–the founders of St. Bernard Project

Our group of (F)friends is meeting up with the founders tonight for dinner.

One of the founders, Zack, is a lawyer who abandoned his practice for the mission-style work he and his wife, Liz (a former elementary school teacher and friend of a co-worker), saw as important here in New Orleans. They’ve been here for nearly two years working on their project, the St. Bernard Project which has helped to (re)build over 87 homes for people in this incredibly hard-hit parish. This group works with several other groups, such as Habitat for Humanity and AmeriCorps to get the work done. They also have sponsors which have helped to finance this work, such as some of the major oil companies and some other private companies. Take a look at their website.

Their strategy is to identify a key person on a block and help them to rebuild in order to encourage others to return. Over 27,000 homes were destroyed in this parish where 80% owned their own homes and there was a 4% unemployment rate, according to Zack.

One phrase they uttered over and over was, “We’re helping people who are *not* FEMA bums”–people who are interested in rebuilding their community who actually need help and will, basically, run with the ball for their community.

Zack’s question for us was “how do we get more people to come down?” Seems so simple, but very good topic for discussion. One offer we made was to contact teachers through their networks, such as listservs and other informal gatherings to promote visiting this place and contributing some of their break time to this work, not to mention students who need to complete service requirements for graduation.

Myself, being Quaker, I was curious to see if we could partner them up with the AFSC as another faith-based group big on service. Looking up what I can on the Internet, I seem to be having trouble finding out if the AFSC is already on the case…anyone with tips on this can post a comment here if you have info on this I can find out about. I’m sure it’s there somewhere.

They told us on Monday that Thursday is often the toughest day for volunteers psychologically; that we might feel disappointment at not being able to do more or leaving in the middle of the job.  I’m not sure how I’ll feel tomorrow, but I’m definitely serious about coming back to continue to work with them.  They’ve been not only hospitable, but very earnest and realistic and “together” for a non-profit which serves up over 200 volunteers a week to 25+ projects under construction all the while maintaining a semblance of order in this environment making its way back from chaos.  Impressive and inspiring to say the least.

News from NOLA

We’re wrapping up the second day, and it’s not nearly as bad as I expected in terms of a year ago. St. Bernard’s ParishLife is coming back to the Quarter, shops are open, and it seems promising. No worries about parking the car in an open lot outside (like last time) or walking home in the late hours.

It’s almost like slow motion, the city slowly waking up from being knocked down. We’ve been eating some wonderful food, amazing, actually, with help from a current guidebook which has helped a lot. The first night we hit a home run with Dante’s Kitchen over in Uptown, then tonight another hit with an Italian restaurant on Frenchman Avenue near our hotel.

The home we’re currently working on is owned by Mr. Parks, a sixty-year old man who basically stayed to ride out the storm and then helped his neighbors with his boat by transporting them to second-story buildings where they could stay until the water receded over the next three or four days.  He returned to his home to collect food from his refrigerator and water to drink for everyone, while keeping an eye out for the police and other folks who weren’t doing good stuff afterward.  He had some stories to tell which I’ll try to follow up on in the next two or three days while we’re there.  What I found more amazing today was that he received his “Road Home” money–money sponsored by the Feds to help with home rebuild projects.  This means that our St. Bernard’s Project work will be completed next week when he’ll be able to pay contractors to do professional work on his home.  Nice, considering he is retired and apparently living on his $900/month pension.  About time–nearly two years later.

The Original NOLA

So, I’m back in The Big Easy and it seems to be coming back as well (photos posted here), despite the poor reports in the news.  We’re here to work on the rebuild project of St. Bernard’s Parish (the St. Bernard Project) which works in conjunction with Habitat for Humanity in one of the most damaged sections of the city.  Tonight we go to the orientation to get our assignment for what we’ll be doing–hope that it’s not roofing, it’s just plain hot here (85 degrees-plus last night at 10pm!).

I’ll be keeping up with this in a somewhat ongoing basis this week via this blog, since so many folks have been asking me about it (and an email list seems so 1999).

Another Deee-Lite/Quakers connection

I’m picking up some new lyrics via my new headphones and, lo and behold, Quakers appear inside the Deee-Lite song “I.F.O.”!:

“I.F.O., Whaddaya know? We’re from the South
Will we ever get a chance to go far north?
What is far north to us? New York!
You spoke before,
I reach back, like Solomon Bell (?)
You’re from another planet if I can tell,
People from the planets working up a sweat,
So y’all come to my place, check out the style
We’ll come to your planet, check out the space
It’s like the relationship between slaves and Quakers,
If we need to run away, we got a place to stay,
Ya’ll are Identified Flying Objects,
More than just an object, you’re flying people,
Flying on the side of good not evil,
Two planets united bringing power to the people!”

Way to go Arrested Development and Deee-Lite!